Predictive Futures: The Normalisation of Monitoring and Surveillance in Education

Tactical Tech’s Youth initiative starting 2020

…data monitoring, surveillance and prediction technologies used in schools are often rolled out without the students’ knowledge, let alone participation.

The grading fiasco in the UK and the facial recognition protests in the US show how predictive technologies can exacerbate bias. As with most predictive algorithms, the systems are based on largely historical training data, which can be limited, incorrect or unfair. In the former case, high-achieving students in previously low-achieving schools were reliant on the reputation of the school and the performance of students from three years prior, with their individual achievements becoming a footnote in their future. In the latter case, Fight for the Future’s anti-facial recognition campaign revealed that the technology produced unreliable yet unsurprising results. The fact that a UCLA football team member was falsely matched with a photo in a mugshot database with ‘100% accuracy’ — despite looking nothing like the convicted man — is a harsh reality of even the best facial recognition software.

The global pandemic has provided a fertile space for surveillance companies and ed tech platforms who are scrambling to respond to new demand.

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the problem of monitoring and surveillance in schools and created a significant boost in the ed tech market. Since March 2020, Google Classroom has doubled in active users, and its video conferencing tool, used by many schools, has increased by 900%. As 68% of countries are depending on remote learning, there is an entire market waiting to fill the void of online learning, homeschooling and even contact tracing for when pupils go back to school. Behavioural monitoring apps such as LiveSchool (US), which compare students’ performance across classes and schools and share real-time behavioural scoring and performance details with administrators, teachers, parents, and kids themselves, are already planning for extended periods of home schooling. One data scientist at Hoonuit, another behavioural monitoring platform, claimed, ‘predictive analytics […] will be especially useful during the 2020–21 academic year when face-to-face learning is limited.‘ New formulas are being introduced, such as the ‘student growth percentile methodology’, which measures students against each other to try to monitor growth. The makers of these technologies claim they will be extremely valuable for comparing a student who has been home-schooled versus a student who has gone back to school. Beyond behavioural analysis, companies that provide beacon tracking technology such as Volan are hoping to market their services as a contact tracing system, by tracking the location of students around the campus.

Students are left in the dark whilst their behaviour, identity and search history is collected without their knowledge, and fed back to them in the form of predictive technologies

The fact that we are beginning to see students standing up for their digital rights and against these technologies because of inherent bias may demonstrate a shift towards more participatory and transparent learning environments. It demonstrates that, as these experimental technologies become more widely used in the educational context, students may begin to react more strongly against the inequities they introduce. By protesting against and overturning the use of technology, the students bridge the gap between the use of the technology and its social and political impact, claiming the territory between as their own. As one teenager describes: ‘My generation has shown itself to be resilient, robust and ready to make change.’

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Tactical Tech

Tactical Tech

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Tactical Tech is an international NGO that engages with citizens and civil-society organisations to explore and mitigate the impacts of technology on society.